Inside the News: How a Colorado Newspaper Confronts ‘Systemic Racism’ of Its Past

  • Corey Hutchins is a journalism instructor at Colorado College and a contributor to Columbia Journalism Review, The Washington Post, and other news outlets. This column is produced with support from the Colorado Media Project, and is distributed statewide via the Colorado News Collaborative.

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Nestled in the foothills west of Denver, the small Golden Transcript newspaper is the latest to publicly grapple with some of its own haunted history.

This week, the paper produced a story headlined “For the record: Examining how the Transcript contributed to systemic racism.”

From that piece:

In the wake of Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the summer of 2020, many cities and newspapers across the United States have started reckoning with their pasts, examining how they’ve contributed to systemic racism, learning what they can do to be more inclusive and fair. The Golden community has started the process, and now it’s the Golden Transcript’s turn.

The newspaper, which now is part of Colorado Community Media, isn’t immune to biased coverage. This report is the product of its journalists attempting to examine the paper’s coverage of the Black community since the Civil Rights era and own up to its mistakes.

One example is how the 157-year-old Transcript covered the Black Panthers between 1969 and 1971.

In that three-year period, the paper produced at least 170 articles about the movement. “Nearly all of these articles presented the group in a negative light, with words such as ‘fugitive,’ ‘thugs’ and ‘militants,’” the paper reported. (Corinne Westeman was the lead writer for the story, and the project was a staff effort.)

More from this week’s Transcript:

Jameka Lewis, senior librarian at the Denver Public Library’s Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library and a freelance researcher on this report, said Transcript readers may have had their beliefs about the Black Panther Party, and the Black community in general, shaped by the Transcript’s negative portrayals.

“There is harm when it comes to media and the Black community in Denver and Colorado,” Lewis said. “If we want to repair the harms, we have to acknowledge that (they are) factual.”

Alfonzo Porter, editor-in-chief at Denver Urban Spectrum and a journalism professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver, said mass media has been at the epicenter of “propagating negative images and reflections of the African-American community.”

“It really stems out of our country’s background, and we’re still dealing with those biases,” he said.

While almost all of the Transcript’s stories about the Black Panther Party were from wire services like United Press International, Porter said the Transcript and other newspapers are accountable for reprinting those stories. “It’s exactly like original reporting, because … the editorial staff sat in a room, looked at this piece, determined that it was appropriate and ran with it in the paper,” he said.

The Transcript’s report also compares and contrasts the way some of Colorado’s white-run press reported news in the ‘60s and ‘70s with the ways Black-run news organizations did.

“Oftentimes, it was up to Black news media to cover this group in a more comprehensive way, which I believe The Denver Blade did,” Lewis is quoting saying about a Black-owned newspaper. “It covered all aspects of the local and national Panthers, and offered readers a more balanced view of the members of this group.”

There is a lot more in the story — about the paper’s past, present, and future.

“The Colorado Community Media newsroom acknowledges it has work to do, and this February 2023 report is only the first step in what the team hopes will open a wider conversation about systemic racism and media coverage for years to come,” reads a passage toward the end. “Working on this report brought CCM staff members face-to-face with outdated practices and implicit biases.”

In a separate note to readers, Colorado Community Media Publisher Linda Shapley wrote: “We believe this story is important beyond Golden — and we hope to spark conversations in our communities across the Denver area about race and inclusion and how our news coverage impacts those issues.” In another column, she wrote: “Our predominantly White newsroom was tasked with scrutinizing the tainted coverage that came decades before and working out how to repair the relationship with Black readers today, many who distrust traditional forms of media because of past biases like the ones we detailed in the project.”

Shapley also explained how the initiative came about, including support from an organization that underwrites this newsletter:

The idea for the project started in 2020, when the Colorado News Collaborative, Colorado Media Project and Free Press convened the Black Voices Working Group, which was made up of Black leaders, community members and journalists. The group addressed media coverage and focused on how to improve trust in mainstream media among the Black community. Acknowledging past harm was the No. 1 recommendation made by the group. … We pursued and were awarded a grant from the nonpartisan Colorado Media Project to explore, uncover and analyze this issue in the form of the special report that is in this edition of your newspaper.   

Beyond that, Shapley is quoted in the main Transcript story noting how larger newspapers like The New York Times, Washington Post, Kansas City Star, Philadelphia Inquirer, and others have similarly analyzed their past coverage. And the Transcript, she wrote, “encourages other newspapers in the region and across the country to do so as well.”

‘I want to fill this gap’: Greeley Gadfly local newsletter goes live

Trenton Sperry has become the latest local newspaper employee to start a hometown Substack newsletter.

The Greeley Gadfly, he wrote when announcing the project, will cover “local government and politics news and commentary for Greeley and northern Colorado.” From its About page:

My professional journalism career started at The Greeley Tribune in Greeley, Colo., where I worked just about every job from copy editor and layout designer to government reporter to features writer. I left the Tribune shortly before it was sold to Media News Group, the conglomerate that owns several major Colorado newspapers — and that’s owned by hedge fund Alden Global Capital.

He currently does production and design for The Fence Post, an agricultural publication. So the Gadfly is a side gig for Sperry, albeit an important one.

“This will essentially be me covering city council, maybe county government … here and there … when I can find the time to do so,” he said over the phone this week. He added he feels such coverage is lacking, and he said he’s willing to offer other area outlets anything he reports if they wish re-publish or re-purpose it with credit.

“The idea is not competition,” he said about the role of The Greeley Gadfly.

Sperry had been contributing city council coverage to another local newsletter, the NoCo Optimist, published by another former print journalist, Kelly Ragan, also based in Greeley, but wanted to do something in his own way.

“I just kind of decided that I want to fill this gap and really try to hammer home government accountability work up here,” Sperry said, adding he believes government entities in the area “have been covered for a long time with sort of a softer hand” and the public deserves to have their local governments “watched closely.”

To that end, Sperry launched his newsletter this week with what he described as a scoop about how the City of Greeley is in “serious talks” with an “unknown company” for an $85 million plastic recycling plant and a $12 million waste sorting facility. Sperry presents the item in typical newsletter-style fashion: voicy and conversational, like he were telling it to a friend.

“It’s that sort of story that we’re probably missing right now,” he said.

Subscribers to the newsletter can pay $5 a month, the minimum Substack allows for a paid model. He said he plans to offer some content for free.

The Greeley Gadfly joins outlets like Boulder BeatThe NoCo Optimist, and Colorado Switchblade in Estes Park as small-scale entrepreneurial newsletters or digital sites filling gaps left by retrenching newspapers in their cities or regions. (Notably, each of those are staffed by former local newspaper journalists.) Like those above, the Gadfly’s success will be worth tracking as others might be able to learn from the model and whether it might work elsewhere.

Sperry described a “fractured” media landscape in Weld County, which is not unlike a lot of areas in the state and nation these days. Given that, I wondered how he conceptualized his target audience for The Greeley Gadfly.

“It’s probably a Greeley resident who wants to know more about what their local government is doing on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “Someone who may not have the time to watch the meetings themselves but would like an eight-minute recap of what happened and a rundown of the big stories that they may be missing. That’s a big part of community: sitting around and talking about the things that are going on around you. And I think that’s just missing here, and I’d like to see it grow.”

Colorado politicians battle Big Tech

Colorado’s elected officials are deep in the mix among politicians rattling rhetorical sabres at the nation’s top technology firms.

Republican Congressman Ken Buck has blasted Amazon, Apple, and Facebook as speech-suppressing monopolies, and he last week ripped into DirecTV for what he derided as censoring conservative views after it removed Newsmax from its programming.

“It’s unbelievable that these companies get away with what they do,” Buck has said.

At the same time, Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet has called on two tech titans to ban TikTok from their online stores. He believes the popular Chinese-owned social media app poses a national security risk.

“It’s irresponsible for us to make it available the way we have,” Bennet told The New York Times earlier this month, adding, “I hope that Apple and Google will take this as an opportunity to lead in this debate.”

Meanwhile, Colorado’s Democratic attorney general, Phil Weiser, is investigating TikTok and actively suing Google over antitrust allegations.

Two years ago, our politicians at the state and federal level were also angling against some of these companies.

“One of the bedrock values of our country is a free press, but we have seen thousands of news organizations crushed by the monopolistic power of Big Tech,” Buck said at the time as he was supporting a bipartisan bill called the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act of 2021.

In recent years, Big Tech platforms have siphoned advertising dollars away from news outlets nationwide. Facebook and Google particularly “have used monopoly to rob journalism of its revenue,” argued former USA Today Editor Joanne Lipman in 2019. Meanwhile, both tech companies have instituted programs to help sustain the local news, including in Colorado. But probably not enough. (I own stock in Apple, Amazon, and ETFs that likely include some of the other tech companies mentioned in this post like Facebook and Google, so I’m probably going to hell.)

Colorado’s Ken Buck in particular is making a name for himself lately on the break-’em-up front. He just published a book called “Crushed: Big Tech’s War on Free Speech.”

“I’m very concerned about tech companies having so much influence on what information people receive, especially political information,” he recently told The Washington Post, whose owner also owns Amazon. “I wrote this book to explain my concerns to a conservative audience.”

Denver Business Journal gets new managing editor

Christine Rourke has jumped from a job as a deputy editor at The Denver Gazette to a managing editor position at The Denver Business Journal.

From the DBJ:

Rourke comes to the DBJ as an award-winning member of Colorado’s media landscape with more than 25 years of experience helping to tell her community’s stories. … Prior to her arrival at the Denver Gazette, Rourke was a university communications officer at Western Colorado University. Rourke also spent 12 years working at the Gunnison Country Times. There, Rourke took on many roles, acting as a reporter, photographer and editor before becoming the editor in chief of the paper.

“Chris’ enthusiasm for meeting and engaging with our business community will no doubt help the DBJ dig up the stories that need to be told,” DBJ Editor-in-Chief Kourtney Geers said in a statement. “She will be a strong leader in our newsroom and beyond.”

🔎 Sponsored | Keep digging, Colorado | Colorado Media Project 🔍
Colorado Media Project believes our democracy works best when the public has transparency into powerful institutions. That’s why accountability journalism is so important to our civic infrastructure. We chose to sponsor this section of Corey’s newsletter to showcase some of the important watchdog work Colorado journalists and their news organizations have produced already in the new year. Corey chose which ones to spotlight.

Colorado accountability coverage in 2023 so far

  • Colorado Community Media has launched a special series called “The Long Way Home” that examines, in-depth, the state’s affordable housing crisis. “We dedicated one newsroom, two dozen journalists and more than seven months of in-depth reporting to explore what makes the path to finding a home such a long and daunting journey,” CCM states.
  • The Gazette’s Jenny Deam reported how a mother’s death “and all that flowed after exposes a troubling glimpse of a system of caretaking and accountability meant to protect an elderly population at its most vulnerable.”
  • Colorado Public Radio pored through hundreds of the state’s “red flag” gun cases stemming from Colorado’s Extreme Risk Protection Order law. “In all, 168 people were required to relinquish their firearms for a year or longer,” Andrew Kenney reported. “In recent months, CPR News has reviewed records for each of those cases” and use of the law “depends on where you live,” Andrea Dukakis reported. The station’s investigation found “uneven application” of this law that “allows temporary confiscation of guns from people who pose a threat,” Chandra Thomas Whitfield explained.
  • Pam Zubeck of Sixty35 Media looked into the 56 traffic fatalities in Colorado Springs in 2022, and concluded that “all of their deaths were preventable.”

To submit a local accountability story for consideration in the future, send me an email. If you or your organization would like to sponsor a recurring section like the one CMP is doing here, hit me up and we can talk.

More Colorado media odds & ends

🎙 The Colorado Press Association asked me to appear on its new Local News Matters podcast and aired the interview this week. Bay Edwards asked the questions. “This is an experimental episode,” the organization’s president, Tim Regan-Porter, said. We talked about trends in Colorado local news and connected some developments happening here to what’s playing out nationally.

📬 Sixty35 Media, the nonprofit entity that encompasses the former Indy alt-weekly and its sister papers in the Springs, has decided to change its direct-mail distribution model. Interim Co-Publisher Ralph Routon has details on the switch here.

💻 Stephanie McNeal published a story at BuzzFeed News this week about how a woman who bought a home that neighbors loved turned against her. “Kittredge is home to fewer than 1,000 people,” McNeal writes. “But, fueled by Facebook rumors and social media infighting, a community disagreement has become a toxic battle leading to real-world confrontations, a lawsuit, and death threats.” (For the latest from our local news on it, check The Canyon Courier’s reporting.)

🎉 This week marked “the 5-yr anniversary for the incorporation of Ad Fontes Media, Inc.,” the Colorado-based company behind the Media Bias Chart.

👀 The national podcast Alphabet Boys that focuses on Colorado and was the subject of last week’s newsletter has made some waves since it launched. “If the allegations are true, the FBI’s use of an informant to spy on first amendment-protected activity and stoke violence at peaceful protests is an outrageous abuse of law-enforcement resources and authority,” said Democratic U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon.

🆕 Campfire Colorado introduced Duncan Luning as the conservative site’s Capitol correspondent.

🎙 City Cast, a network of daily local podcasts and newsletters, is seeking “a Senior Account Executive to join the new revenue team” and is offering a commission structure “in addition to” a base annual salary of $80,000 to $110,000. “The Senior Account Executive will develop and cultivate leads and relationships across the entire Denver Metro Area, establishing City Cast’s podcasts and newsletters as an essential buy for clients.”

🗞 “And now here I am writing an article about why you should read a newspaper,” writes the past co-editor of The Catalyst student newspaper at Colorado College.

🔎 “In June 2021, researchers at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Aurora turned a magnifying glass on Nature’s written journalism,” Nature reported this week. “Computational biologists Natalie Davidson and Casey Greene reported that most of the individuals we quoted were male.”

📡 “A former executive editor and a former CEO share fond remembrances and observations about the significance of the Colorado Springs Independent to Colorado Springs,” teased a podcast at Sixty35 Media that offers some history about the media landscape in the state’s second-largest city.

⚖️ Discovery from a defamation lawsuit by Denver-based Dominion Voting Systems against Fox News has illuminated some wild behind-the-scenes revelations about some of the broadcaster’s TV presenters. Fox has called the suit an assault on the First Amendment.

📱 “False Creative is a team of five hand-selected undergraduate students studying Public Relations at the University of Colorado Boulder,” wrote CU Boulder student Cassidy Davis in The Boulder Daily Camera newspaper. “Together, they are competing against colleges across the nation in the 2023 PRSSA Bateman Case Study Competition to help push the ideas of the News Literacy Project.”

📘 Dale Bridges, a former Boulder Weekly editor, “rouses the Boulder ‘vibe’” with a “noir novel” called “The Mean Reds,” The Daily Camera reported.

💨 Linda Kotsaftis is “leaving her role as Cheif Content Officer to explore other opportunities,” Rocky Mountain Public Media President and CEO Amanda Mountain told staff in an email this week.

🥳 KDNK community radio in Carbondale is celebrating its 40th birthday.

I’m Corey Hutchins, co-director of Colorado College’s Journalism Institute. For nearly a decade I’ve reported on the U.S. local media scene for Columbia Journalism Review, and I’ve been a journalist for longer at multiple news organizations. Colorado Media Project is underwriting this newsletter, and my “Inside the News” column appears at COLab, both of which I sometimes write about here. Follow me on Twitter, reply or subscribe to this weekly newsletter here, or e-mail me at CoreyHutchins [at] gmail [dot] com.